"What?!" I croaked. "How? Heart attack?"
"Yes," he tells me. "They found him unresponsive at his home today."
And so this is how I will always remember hearing about the demise of someone whose culinary skills and achievements I followed diligently. Maybe I haven't written this before, but I briefly dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to become a chef. And although I didn't succeed in that venture, I have been cooking and baking since I was eight (yes, really) and have been a foodie forever.
I had all of Charlie Trotter's cookbooks--lush tomes that were like looking at culinary fantasy lands--or as Anthony Bourdain says, food porn. He was at the head of the pack of the culinary world and so many incredible chefs, Grant Achatz of Alinea for one, learned at his hands.
I had told my husband that before I died, I wanted to eat in a 5-star restaurant, and because he was such an idol of mine, I wanted that restaurant to be Charlie Trotter's. K-man and I, along with my friend Lisa and her husband Paul, went to a Cubs game during the day, and at night we went to Trotter's. I was almost sick with excitement. Lisa and I split a bottle of wine, chosen from a wine book as big as the bible. Then we had about a 12-course meal. Lisa and Paul chose from the meat menu and my husband and I from the vegetable menu (not vegetarian, but rather, heavily vegetable-based). Lisa said she most remembered the fiddleheads. I remembered it all, plus having an incredible dessert and then still being sent home with a box of chocolates. Doesn't that sound simple--a box of chocolates? It wasn't though...everything was artisanal perfection in a box with a large "T" emblazoned on it. Each course over that 3-hour culinary odyssey was more unbelievable than the last. My husband, a man who prefers Kraft macaroni and cheese and scrambled eggs over all this hoopla, ate lots of bread. But you see, he would eat one freshly baked roll off his plate and before it was finished, there would land another...and another, but this time a different type of roll. That went on all night. We had 2 waiters attending to our every need. Getting up and going to the bathroom, chairs were pulled out and you were practically accompanied there. I remember Charlie came up with the idea of having waiters place tape underneath their shoes so they picked up any lint that might be on the carpeting or stairs. He was always thinking.
I met him once. I went to a huge food expo on Navy Pier in Chicago. I had him sign a book, and I said, how I had eaten at his restaurant and how it was so incredible. He looked over me as I talked. He said, "Oh really" as he signed and handed me the book back, never making eye contact. In other words, he wasn't too friendly, to put it nicely. But, such is life. He was a great culinary artist, and this was the talent I respected and admired him for. (I met Jacques Pepin once, too, and he was so warm and charming--it is possible to be both a genius and kind.)
I couldn't believe it when he closed his restaurant last year. He had been on top of the mountain for so many years and now I just felt bad, wondering if this generation of Top Chef watchers even knew his name. I read in the Chicago Tribune when he made an over-the-top last (New Year's Eve) meal for chef-friends before the close. And then he was in the news during the last year, furious at the low sales of his restaurant's possesions at auction and furious again at Christie's losing $60,000 worth of wine in its transport. I mean really, who wouldn't be p.o.'ed about that?
I think Charlie was often angry--always wanting everyone to strive for perfection in both skill and knowledge, and perhaps that lead to a heart condition. But somehow I feel, closing that restaurant, leaving a culinary career where he had once soared above almost all others, broke his heart.
Here's my tribute to someone who I can honestly say provided one of the most stand-out moments of my life. Here's how I remember him the best--from the '90s and early 2000's.
Here's a good link: Chicago Tribune Breaking News Charlie Trotter Dead